The union representing Chicago aviation police officers is accusing the city of violating its contract — and jeopardizing the traveling public’s safety — by stripping the word “police” from the force’s uniforms and vehicles in response to the dragging of Dr. David Dao off a United Express flight at O’Hare Airport.
The rebranding of the Department of Aviation police department began in full force last week, with its SUVs being repainted so they say “security” instead of “police.” In January, aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans ordered the department to remove the word “police” from its uniforms — but the order was never enforced.
Dao’s April 9 dragging off United Express Flight 3411 by three aviation cops — an international black eye for both the city and the airline — appears to have prompted the changes.
Trustees of Service Employees International Union Local 73, which represents the aviation officers, filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Illinois Labor Relations Board on Wednesday.
“These changes undermine the actual authority held by Aviation Officers and place everyone using Chicago Airports at unnecessary risk,” the complaint states.
“On airport property, Aviation Officers have all the powers possessed by Chicago Police Department officers, including the authority to make arrests,” according to the complaint. “Given their law enforcement functions, the Illinois Labor Relations Board has repeatedly determined that Aviation Officers qualify as special police officers.”
And the word “police” is key, the union said in a statement.
“Without the word ‘police’ on their equipment, the ability . . . to perform their job to the best of their ability has been compromised,” union trustees Dian Palmer and Denise Poloyac said in a statement. “They are unable to respond to calls adequately, and the traveling public will not recognize that the first responders to an emergency are state-certified law enforcement officers with the same police powers as the Chicago Police Department.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel refused to talk about the union’s complaint.
“You guys all have fair questions. But the answer has not changed. What everybody saw is totally unacceptable. There’s a review/investigation going on and I’m not gonna prejudge that,” the mayor said.
“I’ve told Ginger and her team: Nothing is off-limits. Get to the bottom of it,” he said. “And then, give a set of corrective actions.”
The mayor was asked why it was so important to remove the word “police” from the officers’ vehicles, uniforms and badges.
“That has been in the works for a while, reflective of a whole series of discussions between aviation security and the police that work there,” he said. “My main goal now is to get to the bottom of what happened, find out who’s responsible. Make whatever changes [are necessary]. When the report’s back, we’re gonna do that.”
For years, City Hall has sent the public mixed messages about the 292-officer, $19 million-a-year force’s role at O’Hare and Midway airports. Though their uniforms and vehicles have long said “police” and the officers get trained at the police academy, city records list them as “aviation security officers,” not police officers. And — much to their chagrin — the officers are not allowed to carry guns.
Besides the aviation cops, armed Chicago Police Department officers also patrol O’Hare and Midway, prompting proposals for CPD to absorb the lower-paid aviation cops into their ranks.
The aviation cops’ union notes the force has “kept the traveling public safe without incident” for more than 35 years and provides the first response to medical and safety emergencies in and around the airports.
“Their credibility and authority has been diminished,” Palmer and Poloyac said. “All equipment and uniforms should have the word `police’ displayed prominently and proudly. . . . The premature, rash decision by Commissioner Ginger Evans to remove the word ‘police’ from Aviation Officers equipment and uniforms puts everyone using our airports at an unnecessary risk.”
Evans could not be reached for comment. Aviation department spokeswoman Lauren Huffman defended the name change.
“CDA policy has long been clear that while aviation security officers are an integral part of our airport security and operations, that they do not have the same authority as sworn Chicago Police officers,” Huffman wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“What you are seeing is the Aviation Department reinforcing our existing policies at Chicago’s airports,” she said.
Under pointed questioning at a City Council hearing two weeks ago, Evans acknowledged that she ordered the word “police” removed from uniforms worn by aviation security officers in January, but the order was never enforced.
That explains why at least one of the three officers now on paid administrative leave for dragging Dao down the aisle of Flight 3411 still had the word “police” on his uniform.
In a flurry of emails that followed the incident, Evans had referred to the uniform controversy that would surface later during the City Council hearing. “This is an example why the cloth stars on ASO clothing causes confusion. They are not Chicago Police,” she wrote.
Adam Rosen, a spokesman for SEIU Local 73, said the commissioner started moving to enforce her name-change order last Friday.
“They started taking the cars and they came back with the word `security’ on them, instead of police,” he said Wednesday. “There’s nothing in writing yet from the city. But eventually, they want to remove the word ‘police’ from uniforms that’s right on the back. The word `police’ is also on the badges they wear. That’s what they’ll move to next. They’ve already asked for the star numbers.”
Rosen said the union filed a “cease and desist order” demanding that the city “stop what they’re doing.” When Evans proceeded with the name change, the union drafted the unfair labor practices complaint.
“Changing the name is not only a mandatory subject of collective bargaining. It’s changing their job classification. It’s also a safety and security issue,” Rosen said.
Evans is in the midst of a top-to-bottom review of the passenger-dragging incident, which will ultimately determine whether the aviation force will continue to exist.
Inspector General Joe Ferguson is also investigating the incident that left Dao with injuries that his attorneys describe as a broken nose, two chipped teeth and a sinus problem that will require surgery.
In the internal emails that followed the incident, Evans was incredulous that the officers were aboard the flight to begin with to handle what amounted to a customer service issue. It happened after Dao refused to give up his seat for a United crew member who needed to get to Louisville to handle another flight.